LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the curious case of the NBA MVP award
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The NBA MVP award is faulty.
Should the award be given to the best player in the league? Or the player who has the most impressive stats in a season? Or the player who is most valuable to his team?
No one knows.
There are no guidelines, directions, rules or uniform standards that voters are supposed to abide by. It's all very subjective, with each voter applying his or her own interpretation of the words "most valuable."
It's a bit confusing to everyone, including the players.
"The NBA MVP is a very political award," Kyle Kuzma told reporters Thursday after the Lakers' 116-105 win over the Charlotte Hornets. "So, you know, 'Bron [LeBron James] should have been the MVP at least eight, nine, 10 times. Everybody knows that."
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel also advocated for his superstar to win the league's highest individual honor.
Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won the award after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the league in games played through March 11. In that period, he averaged 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He also posted the highest player efficiency rating (31.9) in a single season in NBA history, per ESPN Stats & Information data.
Antetokounmpo received 85 of 101 first-place votes. James, who was the runner-up for the award, got 16 first-place votes.
At the time, James acknowledged that he was "pissed" that he received so few top votes. But according to the numbers, it made sense.
Antetokounmpo's stat line was arguably stronger than James' in that period. James averaged 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and a league-leading 10.6 assists. Plus, the Bucks had a better record than the Lakers.
But in December, even Antetokounmpo acknowledged that the numbers don't always tell the whole truth.
"It doesn't matter who is the MVP," Antetokounmpo told Cosmote TV in Greece. "He is the best. I say so. He is the best in the world. The day that I would be the best player in the world, I will step forward and say it."
James has no shortage of MVP awards. In his 18 seasons in the league, he has won four. Only three players in league history have won more: including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Bill Russell (five) and Michael Jordan (five). Wilt Chamberlain also won four.
But James agrees that there should be more trophies in his home.
"I should have more than four, I believe," James told reporters Thursday. "But I don’t sit around thinking about it or crying about it or whatever the case may be. I just try to come in the next season and be the MVP and be talked about again. I bet a lot of the greatest that played this game feel like they should have more as well."
He's undoubtedly right.
Some players who are in the conversation about the greatest of all time have won surprisingly few MVP awards.
Kobe Bryant, for example, won only one, in 2008. Fourteen players have won more MVP awards than Bryant did.
And then there are those who never won and likely should have, such as Jerry West, who was runner-up four times. West was one of the clutchest and fiercest competitors to ever play the game. In 1971-92, he led the Lakers to a then-record 69 wins while leading the league in assists. Abdul-Jabbar won his second straight MVP that season for the Bucks, who won 63 games.
Think about it: The player the league's logo is modeled after never won its top individual honor.
This season, the MVP race is already heating up.
According to BasketballReference.com, Nikola Jokic has the highest probability of winning the award (40.5 %), followed by James Harden (18%), Joel Embiid (15.5%), Antetokounmpo (12.5%) and James (3.4 %).
If James saw that percentage, he'd likely be "pissed" all over again.
James, who most recently won an MVP award in 2013, wants his eight-year drought to come to an end. And he isn't too shy to admit it.
"It means something, for sure," he said of the award. "I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t mean anything to me."
The 36-year-old is averaging 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists for the Lakers, who are in second in the Western Conference with a record of 28-13, 1.5 games behind the first-place Utah Jazz.
Other players have more eye-popping stats. But again, that doesn't mean everything.
"At my age, what I’m able to do, what I’ve been doing this whole season, what I bring to the table every single night on both sides of the floor, it would mean an unbelievable thing for me, especially at this point in my career," James said. "So we just see where the chips may lay."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.